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Thoughts from a Yale Mom about the “Princeton Mom”

I think a little perspective is order.

The incendiary advice of Susan Patton ‘77, a Princeton alumna, that Princeton women find husbands while at college and marry early, has crashed the Princeton website and generated millions of comments, most of them outraged, although some supportive.

Doubtless, her letter has gotten more burn than the North Korean threat of nuclear war.

I don’t happen to agree with Patton’s guidance, but the woman wrote a letter, for heaven’s sake. She doesn’t represent a multinational corporation or faction, or speak for the Obama administration, or even for Princeton University.

In her letter, I hear echoes of the sort of well-intentioned but old-fashioned advice that my own mother gave me in my college years. She still speaks fondly of my (admittedly amiable) college boyfriend, and would have been delighted if I’d married him at 21—although she is delighted that I married my husband, later in life, too, and that I postponed marriage and motherhood until my 30s, and got a Ph.D.

I’m more disconcerted by potentially injurious messages that come from larger entities—such as, Victoria’s Secret, or the American Pediatric Association, Congressional representatives, powerful anti-feminist or anti-abortion organizations, or even just from an influential magazine that’s capable of amplifying and operationalizing an opinion in people’s lives, whether through proposed legislation, organized lobbying, or norm-setting.

I don’t know why women are so jittery about and vulnerable to random women’s personal opinions. Is our inner sense of self so undeveloped and doughy that it’s this easily threatened or incensed by a 50-something letter writer’s opinion?  I suspect that the collective over-reaction must be created, or at least profoundly aided and abetted, by Twitter and Facebook.

I also suspect that Patton wrote something light, not knowing that it would get sucked in to the Category 5 tornado that seems to spin all over the place today: Her comment became one moment among hundreds, from Ann Romney to a breastfeeding mom to Sheryl Sandberg, that become vehicles for a ritualized, compulsivelly re-staged lashing out between women about career and motherhood. The vehicle hardly matters, and fades fast enough, and there’s no constructive end in sight to any of this.

Although I don’t want to “pile on” Patton yet more, I have to say that it’s a red flag for me when someone starts pontificating to young people about when, how, if, or whom they should marry.

Princeton women would do well to heed the old 1960s canard, “don’t trust anyone over the age of 30.” Myself included.

Among other things that I disagree with in Patton’s advice, setting aside the obvious point that it presupposes that we all seek marriage, when increasingly, many do not:  First, I wouldn’t equate spousal “worthiness” with the degree of competitiveness of the admissions process at the school the spouse attended.

Second, I’m not sure why Patton’s advice wasn’t extended to men as well. Surely, men will stand no better chance, by her logic, to find a “worthy” woman than at Princeton? Why urge the pursuit of the Mrs. Degree without the Mr. Degree quest as well? The message might have been more modern, or post-modern, had she done so.

Third, the advice is in some ways both redundant and obsolete. One of the major trends of the late 1900s and 2000s is ever more meticulous “assortative mating,” whereby like marries like. Women and men already tend to marry people who are at their exact level of education and earning power, so even without pairing up in college, they seem to be finding their “worthy” mates according to the U.S. News and World Report’s index of college competitiveness. The advice feels obsolete in the age of social media, too, because there’s plenty of time to reconnect with these candidates throughout life. It’s not as if they have one shot to marry them, while at school, and young.

As for the virtues of young marriage versus marriage later in life, I’ll have to follow my own advice: Be wary of anyone who prescribes when, how, if, or whom you should marry. I won’t do that to you.

Any potential decision could work out beautifully, or fail miserably. I know women in all camps—one who married in her early 20s, and is still married, although she tells me she wouldn’t herself recommend it as a course for young women today. I know women who married and had children happily in their late 30s.

If you marry early, and it works out, it can be a relationship where you grow and learn together, and build a life together. If you marry later, and it works out, it can be a nice phase in an already rich life, one that you enter with a firm understanding of who you are, and some lovely relationship experiences under your belt, and confidence in your independence. If you never marry, there are advantages to that lifestyle as well. Just ask the married folks.

“Grass is greener” thinking rules like a warped despot in most discussions among women of marriage, career, and the unmarried life. All marital choices have encumbrances and losses. To choose one is to shut off another. Most choices have advantages as well, and hopefully a great deal of joy. I suppose that’s the only thing you can count on in life:  the unavoidable interleaving of fulfillment and regret. And the imperfection, perhaps slight and hopefully not profound, of whatever choice you make about marriage.

You can’t argue from anecdote, or generalize about the “optimal” marriage window. To do so is precisely to deny the benefits of liberation, and to start re-prescribing the kinds of “ideal” lives that women should have, according to one script, when it was the whole point of women’s liberation to obliterate or at least multiply those scripts.

It seems to me that young people are fairly rational in how they think about marriage. Women and men earn their own keep now. They don’t have to marry at 20—as half of American women did in the late 1940s and 1950, because, frankly, they needed a meal ticket and a social identity that wasn’t easily forthcoming elsewhere, or by staying single.

The only advice is that you enjoy your college years, perhaps the only time when you’re sentient and at least semi-independent and unencumbered with lifelong commitments; study really cool things; find out what you love to do; and have awesome relationships with as many fascinating people as you can.

The next time you’ll enjoy this big a sense of community, freedom, and creative latitude without too many worries about money, mortgage, and family, you’ll be in a retirement community or a nursing home. Marriage will come when it comes… if at all, and if you even end up wanting it.  

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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